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Lisa Lonstron first learned about ADUs from a building inspector when he was conducting the final inspection for her basement. She had just completed a remodeling project to finish out the basement of her 1912 home in the Mt. Tabor neighborhood. After the remodel, the basement – which had previously been under-utilized – contained an art studio as well as a bedroom, a family room, and a bathroom.
“While the inspector was doing the final inspection, he suggested that it would be a wise option as we were very close to being able to qualify for an ADU just from the improvements we had done. He said ‘Right now they’re waiving the fees, too. You’ll just need to add a heat source and a kitchen.’” –Lisa Lonstron
Lisa notes that it was a good time in her life to purge, simplify, and reevaluate as her grown kids were moving out of the house.
“I lived here a long time as single parent to two kids. We had a lot of space. That also means you accumulate a lot of things. We used the basement mostly for storage. At that time in my life I wanted to lighten my load. I ended up having a big garage sale and getting rid of a lot of stuff. When you live in a small space you’re not able to accumulate as much stuff. If I’m going to buy something I need to get rid of something else.” –Lisa Lonstron
Turning the basement into an apartment seemed like a reasonable way to generate some rental income. However, she wouldn’t have been able to start the project immediately if the System Development Charge Waiver hadn’t been in place at the time.
“If the waiver hadn’t been in place, I would have loved to do it, but would have had to wait and save up. The waiver inspired me to go ahead.” –Lisa Lonstron
Lisa took out a home equity line of credit to fund her basement ADU and supplemented it with a portion of each month’s income from her employment. However, many of the finishing touches were a labor of love. Lisa’s key design consideration was staying on budget while using creative design and décor to make it interesting. She notes that it’s hard to figure out the exact cost of the ADU for two main reasons. First, she finished out the basement and then turned it into an ADU, so she wasn’t tracking the costs of the ADU separately from the art studio space she created in the basement. Second, she and her then-boyfriend Gustav did most of the work themselves. They kept costs low by locating the kitchenette adjacent to the new bathroom to simplify plumbing and by purchasing most of the materials from the ReBuilding Center, the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, or Craigslist. Lisa figures that 90-95% of the materials used for her basement apartment were salvaged.
Lisa has three tricks for incorporating salvaged materials on a budget:
“Instead of kitchen cabinets I got a curio cabinet. I talked them down to $50 and repainted it to finish it up. It has glass shelving, doors, and a built-in light, which gives the kitchenette a warm glow when lit. We also put in an old-fashioned, cast iron propane cooktop. And we didn’t have a separate heat source, so I bought a brand new ‘used’ pellet stove from a friend, which Gustav painted red, and got a granite slab to function as the hearth. The sliding glass doors that close off the closet fit the entire length of the opening and they came from ReBuilding Center for just $100. Also all the trim work around the ADU was cedar cut-offs we bought from a company that makes fences. They sell these in bulk. It was something like $15 for a cubic yard and that was enough to trim out the baseboards.” –Lisa Lonstron
2) Purchasing materials on the cheap and storing them until they come in handy.
“Several years ago I’d purchased glass blocks, not knowing what I’d do with them. I ended up using them in the bathroom. I did two rows of glass blocks in the wall and glass blocks also act as a divider between shower and sink. A few years ago, the Christian college at the base of Mt. Tabor was remodeling their library, and in the process were selling off their original large bookcases. The price was right, so I purchased several of the large bookcases. We built two into the wall in the attic, and stored the others in the basement. They came in handy when I realized they would be perfect to build into the walk-in closet for the ADU. So I trimmed them out and painted them.” –Lisa Lonstron
3) Getting lucky.
“You get lucky sometimes. With salvage it’s also about being at the right place at the right time. Gustav found a freestanding kitchen unit, with a ceramic farm style sink and a drainboard. It had a built-in apartment dishwasher, which was brand new. We got the whole unit for $150 and it was $1500 new. I’ve had lots of good luck with Craigslist, too. One of Gustav’s mottos is to ask around among your friends, or manifest your needs into the universe. You’d be amazed how many people are storing things and supplies they’ll never use, and in many cases are willing to let go of for free or cheap.” –Lisa Lonstron
On the other hand, Lisa also cautions that just because something is free, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth building around.
“Sometimes you get something for free and think ‘This is cool! I’m going to make it work!’ We were gifted a big industrial under-counter fridge and we built the cooktop around that. It wasn’t working so I paid $200 to repair it. It looked cool but it was very noisy. Six months later the repair broke and they gave me $200 back and took it to salvage it. For a while I had a couple mini fridges to get by temporarily because it was only thing that would fit under the cooktop. More recently I’ve built a pantry through the door that leads to basement with the washer and dryer. I have a full-size fridge there now, and industrial shelving racks to store pantry items, pots, and pans. I wish I’d figured out the fridge earlier. Now I have a big empty space under cooktop. Eventually I want to build real shelves with doors there.” –Lisa Lonstron
There were a few places where Lisa invested in new materials. The bamboo flooring she bought new from Costco. She selected high quality padding to go under the bamboo floors since she has a concrete floor underneath. She splurged on heated elements under tile in bathroom to keep the floors warm. The lighting was all purchased new from IKEA since she wanted to makes sure her basement ADU was bright and cheery.
Speaking of light, Lisa says a highlight of the build was the decision to knock a giant hole in the wall and install French doors. This created an additional entrance, but it also brought in much more light. In order to provide access to this below-grade entrance, the soil needed to be dug out.
“It was all hand-dug by a bunch of strong friends who came over and dug for an afternoon. The six concrete stairs are unique. Before we poured the concrete, we gathered leaves and we added them to the boards so when the concrete was poured it left impressions of the leaves. Gustav welded a huge sculptural canopy on the backside. I’m saving up to replace the current cover (a billboard tarp) with a nice outdoor grade canvas.” –Lisa Lonstron
As you can see, Lisa’s basement apartment includes lots of personalized touches. She’s pleased with the integration of found objects and Gustav’s creative vision and skill that have made her ADU a work of art.
“The influence of artistic detail has created not just an interesting living space, but also a piece of functional art. Most everyone who visits our ADU finds the aesthetics pleasurable and gets a kick out of the unique details that have been added. I love that most of the details are ‘one of a kind,’ and resourced from found, gifted, recycled, upcycled, and handmade materials.” –Lisa Lonstron
One area she’s particularly proud of is the shower.
“The pan itself was hand made and it curves up a little bit and creates a lip around the edge. That was all tiled with colorful river rocks and we did a design around drain, so it looks like an octopus. The walls are tiled with hand-cut white tile. There’s a subway look to it, but we added decorative features. We cemented in rocks, crystals, and sea glass I had collected over the years.” –Lisa Lonstron
Originally, Lisa planned to rent out the basement apartment and live in the main house with her family. However, the remodel took longer than expected and meanwhile her kids left home. So as soon as it was ready to move into, she moved into the ADU herself. She began renting out the house upstairs, room-by-room. (Learn more about Lisa’s Boarding House.)
So what advice does Lisa have for homeowners considering creating an ADU on their own property?
“Research the permitting requirements so that you can do as much of the work as possible to keep costs down. Labor costs add up fast. Do it right the first time. Hire professionals for the areas you don’t have expertise or know-how. Don’t be afraid to think big and play with possibilities! This can still be done under a strict and small budget!” –Lisa Lonstron